Directed by Brian Helgeland
2013 Biographical Drama
2 hours 8 minutes
From Legendary Pictures and
T. R. Knight
These are not the musings of a baseball nut. I couldn't care less about the game to tell you the truth and the expressions box scores and RBIs never emit from my lips. I am not altogether crazy about baseball movies either (or most sports movies) although I saw baseball bios The Winning Team and The Stratton Story in my youth. And it would have later been positively un-American not to have seen the fictional Bull Durham, Field of Dreams or The Natural. But we have the best of the true baseball stories right here.
Should you not know what this film is about, then listen up. Brian Helgeland wrote and directed an enormously thoughtful biography about Jackie Robinson, the black man who broke the color barrier in baseball in the mid-1940s. The number on his jersey was 42.
To say that Robinson's joining the Brooklyn Dodgers created a brouhaha is a massive understatement and all the prejudice and menace and threats spill out on the screen. To a large degree the man who broke the baseball color barrier was the Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey. Even before he knew much about Robinson, he decided he wanted a black baseball player on his team and in the major leagues. It was not about black or white but about green, as he says. Money. He realized there were a gazillion black fans of the sport and he thought they deserved to root for one of their own and the dollars would come flooding in even more.
I know a white fan of Robinson's quite well... my old man. Always a rabid baseball fan and also a champion of black people, he thought Robinson was the best thing that ever happened to baseball. When Robinson cracked those home runs and stole those bases, my old man whooped and hollered as though he were in the stadium. He wasn't at all like those portrayed in the film. He had posters of Robinson in our garage.
Branch Rickey realized there would be a lot of trouble. He also knew that Robinson had a hair trigger. Before hiring him, he asked for his word that he would not explode or cause any problems for the Dodgers and gave a litany of reasons why that was. Robinson was sorely tested. The only one who truly and completely believed in him was Rickey and Mrs. Robinson. In one of the film's most harrowing scenes the manager of the opposing team heckles Robinson unmercifully from the dugout. It was wildly over the top and incredibly hard to listen to... even in a film.
This is a good time to add that the use of the N-word wrestles with Django Unchained for the most unpleasant but let's face it, it is history. It's the way it was done back then. The same could be said in baseball for other races as well, of course, but it is stupefying that that's the way they talked in lieu of how it is today. Oddly, there is almost no cursing.
With all the prejudice and egregious treatment swirling around Robinson, some of the most painful comes from his fellow teammates. Watching it take place and realizing, of course, that it's going to get better before the film's end, it brought out all kinds of emotions in me and a number of others in the audience. A scene with star co-player Pee Wee Reese, who eventually throws his support publicly to Robinson, is enormously touching.
I may not care for baseball movies, but I do care very much for biographies and for stories that illuminate the human spirit. Those triumphant moments never cease to bring tears to my eyes and while I never made noise or caused my fellow matinee patrons any distress, I had teary eyes throughout most of the moving film.
|Boseman plays Jackie|
I had never heard of Chadwicke Boseman, but I damn well have now. We need more fabulous black actors and he seems more than up to the task. I will certainly keep my eyes opened for what's next for him. He even looks a bit like Robinson. His acting was spot on and he was certainly called upon to display every emotion known to a human being.
The heart of the film is arguably the part of Branch Rickey who serves as a bit of an onscreen narrator and the social conscience. And let me tell you, Harrison Ford has played a lot of heroic parts, but never more so than here. I actually felt pride for him-- like he's my kid or something-- that he rose to the occasion and etched an indelible, richly-nuanced performance about a wise and plucky man. He was forceful and yet understated as a man of great conviction, honor, loyalty and humor. I think this is the best role so far in his later career. I hope he is honored for it.
Nicole Beharie, whom I last saw and so enjoyed in Shame, was joyous as Rachel Robinson. I expect she and Jackie had the wonderful marriage that is portrayed in the film and I know she still speaks lovingly about him in public. It was lovely to see a marriage depicted in such an honorable way.
The brass ring goes to the entire supporting cast as well. Not a false note to be found.
I think this is an important film, not just a highly enjoyable one. Few of us would deny that there's not more work to be done on the racial front, but this film allows us a view of how far we've come.
I can find no fault with this film although I found myself wishing it were longer.
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